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Don't Bug Me!


Whenever we can, usually every year or so, my two daughters and I 'escape' from Tokyo for a while, and spend some time down at the house in the country village where their late grandfather lived. An elderly aunt of theirs lives there by herself now, and as there's lots of room, she doesn't mind much if we 'drop in' for a while. A typical visit usually lasts for a couple of weeks, and we always have a very good time, but the visit is not without problems ...

My girls are still quite young, nine and eleven, and I always have the same trouble with them each time we arrive in the country. They don't want to use the toilet. I think you can guess why. The house is very old, and the dark and gloomy bathroom, 'out back' behind the main building, and next to an old woodpile, is pretty scary territory for little girls. It's mostly the 'wildlife'. Every time you open the door and look in, you catch quick glimpses of various insects and 'creepy-crawlies' all running off into little cracks and chinks in the walls.

Sometimes one of the bolder ones, perhaps a beetle of some sort, perhaps a big spider the size of my open hand, will hold its ground, refusing to budge. It seems almost to be quite defiant, daring you to enter its territory. With the girls, this strategy usually works, and they run off in a panic to fetch some adult assistance. I say 'with the girls', but I have to admit that even I too have been given pause before entering, and once when I found a short snake in temporary residence in there, I withdrew quietly, and 'took my business' elsewhere ...

The aunt just laughs at us. She's lived there all her life, and these 'guests' are simply small nuisances to be chased away, brushed aside, or stepped on as necessary. Us 'city slickers' though, aren't so experienced as she. For all our lives, we've lived in an environment where no surprises lurk behind bathroom doors, and no 'guests' live with us.

But which of these attitudes is more natural; to live in quite close proximity to these (mostly) harmless neighbours, and share living space with them, or to maintain a rigourously clean, not to say sterile, environment, and keep them all out? Both options seem somewhat wrong to me. None of us wants to have bugs nibbling food in our kitchens, but on the other hand, as a result of the forced sterility of our city life, my daughters seem to be growing up with the feeling that they must avoid contact with just about all the other creatures that live on this planet with us. They are not 'friends' of ours, but things to be feared.

This cannot be a healthy attitude for them, and I must try and make sure that during our short times spent in the country, they get acquainted with as much of the local fauna as possible; the little frogs in the garden, the hawks floating over the fields, the mice living in the pile of straw, and yes, even those little 'guests' who share our bathroom.

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'Under Construction'


My friend Ushiro-san is building a log house down here in the country. So far, it has taken him about five years, and it's still far from ready for his family to move in. When I ask him how much longer it will probably take, he just shrugs his shoulders ... who knows ...

Five years! Do you think he is lazy? Don't you think he is a little bit too slow? Well actually, he's neither. He works very hard on the house ... when he can. You see, not only does he have a full-time job to go to every day, and thus only has weekends and holidays free for his house project, but his future home is located about 300 kilometers away from his current residence. That means an awful lot of time spent just in travelling back and forth. Obviously Shigeyoshi-san is very, very dedicated to his home building project, and I'm amazed that he's got as far as he has, in just five years.

The log walls are up, the roof is finally on, and he is now building doors and windows, all by hand. The plumbing and electrical wiring will come next, and then the interior finishing.

When you hear this story, do you say "Taihen, desu ne!"? I think Ushiro-san probably hears this phrase a lot ... but he'll never hear it from me! I would rather say, "Tanoshii, desu ne!" Yes of course, his work is 'taihen' ... hard, heavy and time consuming. But it is also something very special. With his own two hands, along with help from his family, Shigeyoshi-san is building his own home - a place where his children will grow up, and the family roots will go down.

In times gone by, before the age of large cities, building one's own home must have been something that nearly every man did as a matter of course. But these days, it is an accomplishment that very few of us achieve. When I was somewhat younger, in my early 20's, I too thought that one day I would like to take on such a big project, but now that I find myself in my 40's, I wonder if I would be able to find the energy. And by the time I do finally get it together in terms of land and money, I suppose my kids will have grown up and left, and that seems to take away a lot of the motivation for doing it in the first place ...

But Ushiro-san is well under way. When his family does finally move in, in the (I hope) not too distant future, they will enjoy the pleasure of knowing that every log, every board, and every rail, was put in place by their father, not by a blase group of professional carpenters, who were 'here today, somewhere else tomorrow'. What more satisfying and interesting work could there possibly be for a man? As he raises his children, so does he raise his home, with love and care ...

So surely with a project this important and enjoyable, the longer it takes ... the better. Only 5 years so far - Ushiro-san, I hope it will take you 50 more!

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Wooden School


One building dominates the village, and it's the first thing that comes into view as the bus rounds the final turn, coming up the road from the city down on the coast. The road hugs one side of the valley, tight against the steep mountainside, and twists and turns, left and right, as it follows the contours, making its way past the wide rice fields waving under the summer sun.

The name of this village, where grandad grew up, is Ozato, 'big village', but this only makes sense in comparison to the tiny clusters of houses scattered here and there in corners of the long valley. There are only a few dozen houses even here, but as it sits roughly halfway between the river mouth at the bottom, and the final tiny hamlet up at the other end, it is a focal point of valley activity.

It was thus natural that the education authority should choose Ozato as the site for the valley middle school over 100 years ago, and it is the roof of this long low wooden building, standing on the mountainside at a slightly higher level than the village houses, that one sees from the bus.

Late the other day, out on a stroll with my two daughters in the early evening cool, we come up the hill towards this place. The wooden walls are a deep brown, mottled and stained over the decades, but still a rich colour, not bleached to a dull grey as are most of the old houses nearby. We cross the stony playground, climb the front steps, and find that not only do no locks keep us out, but there are not even any doors to block our access to the wooden hallway that runs the length of the building, off to our left and right.

Kicking off our shoes, we step up onto the dark, shiny wooden floor, and enter another world. I can think of no words more apt than that tired old phrase 'polished smooth by generations of feet', to describe this building. Not only the floors, but everywhere within reach has been rubbed until it actually glows in the late sunlight that streams horizontally through the front windows. The doorknobs, handrails, posts ... everything has a deep sheen like an old-master violin. How many hands have swung around this corner post here? How many feet have slid across this entranceway?

The three of us sit down in a row of students' desks. We disturb nothing, we just want to soak up a tiny bit of the ambience of this amazing place, but the light is fading rapidly now, so we quickly walk round the rest of the building. Everything brown. Golden brown everywhere, and burnished clean until it glows! As we leave and make our way homeward through the now darkened lanes of the village, that long row of windows behind us catches the last light, and reflects the glow of the evening sky. We are each silent with our own thoughts.

But now I have to confess that I have not been quite fair with you while writing this little story. I have used words like 'is', 'stands', and 'are', and oh how I wish that they were true! For these words are now lies, and had I been honest with you, I would have said 'was', 'stood', and 'were'. For this story was last year's story, and during the past winter, this magical building was replaced with a modern concrete structure.

I suppose the students are happy in their clean, bright, not to say warm classrooms. I suppose the insurance company is happy, secure in the knowledge that this building will not catch fire one cold night. I suppose the village parents are happy, knowing that their children have a facility the equal of those in the big cities. But if everybody is so happy, then why are my eyes full of water?

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Getting Better ...


I've been here in Japan long enough now that it is possible for me to notice changes taking place in this society. During the first couple of years here, everything was fresh and new to me, and my only basis for comparison was between Canada and Japan. But I've gradually grown accustomed to things here, and can now see some differences between the Japan of eight years ago when I arrived, and the Japan of the present.

During our first summer-time trip down to Grandad's country village, I was quite shocked at the amount of garbage I saw in the river where we swam every day, surrounded by the crowds of sun-browned elementary school kids. I don't say this to reinforce your perception of Canada as a wonderful, green, clean country, for there are certainly no shortage of beer cans in the rivers there too, but that this beautiful swimming area right in the centre of the village should be so spoiled with junk, was quite a disappointment for me.

We didn't say anything to those kids, and we didn't chastize, but one day, after a week or so of swimming surrounded by garbage, we went back to the house, grabbed some large plastic bags, came back to the river, and started filling them up with trash. We noticed three kinds of reactions from the kids playing in the river. Most of them either didn't notice what we were doing, or simply ignored us. Another group, just a few, stared and pointed at us, and made some "Henna gaijin" type of comments. But a third group, also just a few, started to help, collecting stuff and bringing it to help fill our bags.

From then on, we made this a regular habit, and always returned from swimming trips carrying bags of assorted garbage, and I suppose the village gradually got used to our behaviour. Year after year, there was always lots to pick up. The garbage was mostly made up of a few standard items: styrofoam noodle cups and plastic snack food packages thrown away by the little kids, coffee, beer cans, and cigarette packages from their fathers, and third (and most disturbing) large plastic sacks that had contained agricultural chemicals, obviously discarded by farmers whose plots bordered the river.

I've been using 'past tense' verbs, but now let's switch to the present. How is the river now? Well, as all but brand-new arrivals in Japan know, the situation has improved markedly. In recent years the amount of garbage we bring home from the river has greatly decreased, and we no longer automatically take the plastic bags with us when we go swimming. It's not perfect by any means. The first type of garbage is still to be seen here and there, but the second is quite rare, and I haven't seen any of the third at all for a number of years now. Please don't think that I'm trying to take any credit for this improvement. We're only in the village for a few weeks in any given year, and this gradual cleaning-up of Japan is a much wider phenomenon than just this one little river pool.

I understand that the Tokyo Olympics back in the 60's was a major turning point. Friends tell me that the Tama River near my home in Hamura was an absolute garbage heap before that time, being heaped with old cars, tires, furniture, household garbage, and all manner of junk. But a new ethic has gradually replaced the old one, following that initial stimulus of wanting to show a clean face to the international visitors. The old cars have been replaced by cherry trees, and the area is now the 'pride and joy' of Hamura.

And of course, that's why they keep it clean, because it has been transformed from 'soto' to 'uchi', from something 'outside' that belonged to no one, to something 'inside' that belongs to someone, in this case, the city people. The next step is obvious ... to enlarge this viewpoint to include in the 'uchi' classification, not only ones own village or town, but each road, river and mountain in Japan. And then further, to every square inch of this entire planet. This process is well under way. Let's all do what we can to give it a boost.


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Is God Green?


It was mostly to get away from the Tokyo mugginess that we came down here to the country this August, but we're finding that this is one of those long, very hot summers that seem to come by every few years, and there's just no escaping the oppressive heat, even here.

Yesterday I rather unwisely stepped out for a stroll around the village during the mid-afternoon, and within a few minutes was gasping for breath and looking around for somewhere to shelter from the glare. A narrow footpath leading off to one side seemed to offer some relief, and I followed it as it led between a couple of old stone walls, and then up the hillside. A few steps up, and then ... a pair of small stone lions, one each side, guarding the entrance. Of course, the village shrine.

I step into the compound, and the heat is turned off as though with a switch. Trees tower up on each side of the pathway. Tall 'sugi', even their lowest of their branches far, far above my head. The sky is invisible, the outside world shut out, the air cool and still. I walk forward through the dim light towards the little shrine building, old grey, and ramshackle. The rope hanging down is knotted and frayed.

I don't ring the bell. I never do when visiting these places. I'm not a religious person, in any religion, and to play with things like this, seems to me to be a bit of an insult to those people for whom this has meaning. I'm simply content to enjoy the feeling of calm peacefullness that pervades this place. And then, I notice it, standing off to one side. A tree.

But how useless are those two words - a tree - to describe to you what I see there. A massive, massive presence. What name of tree I have no idea. Not like the surrounding sugi, with shafts tall and straight shooting directly skyward from below the surface of the earth, this tree boils aloft from a gigantic tangle of earth, stones, and writhing roots. An old stone fence enclosing it is pushed aside, and leans this way and that. Arching my head back to follow the vast trunk upwards, my vision is lost in a tangle of huge twisted limbs, and shrouding greenery, and I stand stupidly with mouth agape, trying to take in what I see.

A tree. Ridiculous little words. This is not a tree. I know trees. They are nothing but bigger versions of the little plants in our garden, just another creation of life on earth, like the frog hopping there in the pond, the cat sleeping on the porch, just like you and me standing here. This ... is something else. This is not a 'tree', not a 'plant', not a 'creature'. It is ... an entity ... something above and beyond all these things.

Yes I suppose, at one time hundreds of years ago, it was a little plant. Then it became a tree. But then somehow, during the passage of all those years and years and years, it transcended those concepts. It transformed itself into ...

And then I understand something of the significance of this place. Of that dirty little building standing there. A long time ago, some men knocked a few boards together into a little building shape and said, "This structure shall be our 'shrine'. It shall represent 'godness', and we will stand here to worship." And to protect it, they planted trees nearby. Trees that, while they were day-by-day growing ever so slowly larger and taller, watched all the visitors, heard all the prayers offered, and listened ... and listened ... and listened.

Among those who now come here to ring the bell and commune with their god, how many do you think realize that there he stands, silently watching them?

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'Rajio Taiso'


Did you see the "Annual Hyaku-man nin Rajio-Taiso Chuo Taikai" on NHK the other day? It was at 6:30 AM, which is a good half-hour before I usually wake up, but down here in the country for the summer, our schedule is set by the kids' aunt, who gets up around five or so every day to start making rice for breakfast. She also turns on her TV to get the up-to-date weather forecast, so we thus get quite familiar with early morning TV programs while we're here.

Now of course, having lived in Japan for eight years, I'm basically familiar with 'radio taiso'. A number of the factories near my Tokyo apartment broadcast it in the mornings, and I see the workers exercising as I cycle by on the way to my morning swim at the local pool. I must say that they don't look too enthusiastic about doing it, but I quite sympathize with them. Compulsory exercising has never been a favorite with me, either. In fact, pretty much every single time I've seen people doing 'radio taiso', the only ones who look like they're enjoying themselves are the people standing up front leading, who presumably are the ones who organized the activity in the first place. My image of 'radio taiso' then, is that it is an activity that most people would rather forego, but one that 'organizer-type' people, factory managers, school principals, community leaders, etc., are rather fond of.

I was thus a bit astonished then, to see on the TV screen the image of an entire sports stadium full of people all swinging their arms in those familiar patterns, to that familiar piano music ...

Not only was the playing field itself totally covered with the swaying figures, but the stands as well. Thousands and thousands of people. And this was a 6:30 AM live TV broadcast! At what time of the morning had they all got up in order to get to the stadium on time to do this? And why?

As the cameras panned back and forth across the field, and then moved in for close-ups, I got a few hints as to the answer. This patch of blue colour here looked like a community baseball team, over there was a boy scout troop, and next to them was what looked like a seniors' gateball club. In fact, nearly everybody I could see was wearing some kind of uniform. Of course! They were all members of various community groups, and I suppose when their leaders got the 'request' from NHK to join this event, there was just no way they could refuse. And then the members of each group just did what they were told, and presented themselves at the stadium on time, ready for the event.

Japanese readers are probably wondering why I think that any of this is worthy of comment, but believe me, from a Canadian's point of view, this is rather an unusual activity. Yes of course, Canadians also get together in stadiums for various reasons, and perhaps even at unusual times of day (although offhand, I can't quite think of a reason for them to assemble at 6:30 AM!), but if you were to ask the members of any particular group in a typical Canadian town to be at their sports stadium at this time of day to do ten minutes of stretching exercises, and ... that's all, they would probably not react very favourably to the idea. They just don't have the tradition of doing 'radio taiso', and I think also that their ties to clubs and groups are weaker than in this country, and they can say "no" more easily to things they would rather not do.

But for people here, when the leader calls ... out they come. And what about those among them who would rather stay in bed? At least they can take consolation in the fact that if NHK is rotating this program from prefecture to prefecture each year, then it'll be nearly half a century before it comes around to their turn again!

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Evening River


The long hot noisy summer day is almost over. My kids have finally tired of swimming, splashing and screaming, and have headed back to the house. The visitors from the city have loaded their rubber rings, face masks, and flippers back into their cars, and driven off. I am left alone on the river bank as the sun dips closer to the mountains. A wonderful peace and calm falls over the scene.

From where I sit, the setting sun is directly over the river, off to my right, and the surface of the water has taken the colour and texture of the evening sky. The glassy sheet is covered with streams of pollen dust, over which dragonflies skim back and forth, occasionally dipping down to touch the surface and toss a tiny burst of diamonds into the air. The water is disturbed from below as well, as the tiny fingerlings swimming there rise up to nibble at the invisible gnats flittering over the water.

How I now regret my 'modern' education! This scene is made for poets, but I have no poetry in me. Men of just a couple of generations ago, who read their Keats and Wordsworth from an early age ... perhaps those men could describe what I see this evening. They could find the phrases to describe those shadows that pass by under the river surface over against the far bank, the deep deep place made even darker by the thick grove of trees that leans over the water there.

But even as I watch, one of the shadows rises nearer the surface, and colours become apparent. It is a koi, orange and white, followed by another, and then two more, one white, one grey. They don't come all the way up to the surface, but hover about a foot below, swimming slowly this way and that, then coming to the shallows near where I sit. I see that they are followed by a mass of tiny fishes, presumably finding food in the mud stirred up by the bigger koi.

As the sun dips even further, I hear a faint buzz behind me, and when I look over my shoulder, find that the field there has also transformed. Floating in uncountable millions over the golden rice are midges, cloud after boiling cloud of them. And darting through the clouds are hundreds more dragonflies, enjoying an evening feast.

Everywhere I look now, the scene is full of life - the fields, the river, the forest opposite. All these creatures, who had been quietly hiding or sleeping while we humans took our turn during the day, now come out to do their own business as we in turn leave for our own sleep.

Perhaps it will continue all night, but I will not be here to see it, because with the sun now gone below the mountain ridge, the chill rising tells me that it is time for me too, to leave. So I gather my things, and regretfully start for home.

But just along the bank ... a young couple more thoughtful than I, who have prepared themselves with warm clothes, are settling in for an evening picnic. I leave the river to them. And that's just how it should be. These lovers will pick up where I leave off. They will find no poetic frustration in this scene, for they will need to use no words ...

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Rice Dreams


I have been coming here to the countryside in August nearly every year since I moved to Japan, more than eight years ago. While here, I sit at the window of a second-floor room that overlooks the valley, and spend a few hours each morning working on one of my woodblocks. I'm not such a serious worker in the summer, and I spend a lot of time daydreaming, just looking out the window. Green-coated mountains provide the backcloth, and the river flows by off on the left side, with a scattered arm of the village visible behind it. On the main stage, front and centre, are the rice fields, an absolute sea of rice, extending out and off stage to my right. When I first came here, these fields were set out in a rough patchwork pattern, but a half-dozen years ago, there was a major consolidation, and they are now all long wide rectangles.

At the time of year that I am here, the harvest is well under way, and the miniature combines are chewing their way back and forth across each field. By the time I leave, this work is pretty much finished, the rice has been trucked away for processing and distribution, and nothing but the stubble is left in my view.

Every year I see this same scene, and only this scene. I only get to see the harvesting part of rice growing. I feel like somebody who keeps going to see the same movie time after time, but who always arrives at the theatre late, and only sees the final reel. I already know how it finishes, I want to see it start!

Of course I've seen photos and read descriptions of the other parts of the process, and have a basic idea of how it all works. Even in the part of Tokyo where I live, there are a few small rice fields, and one spring recently there was a rice-planting activity for the school kids, so they (and I!) could see this important part of Japanese culture. But what's missing for me, is the view of the process as a cycle ... from preparation, seeding and planting, through development, up to harvest, and then winnowing, polishing, etc., right up to the table.

Up in the mountains behind this summer workroom where I am writing this, is the old abandoned farm about which I have written before. Okunono. 'Farthest Fields'. Grandad's old farm. We have visited Okunono many times, and a couple of years ago spent the entire month of August 'roughing it' up there. And I mean roughing it. No electricity, no gas, no road for access. This is the place where the mother of my two daughters grew up, and at one point, she and I played around with the idea of taking off from Tokyo and moving up there for a while. I think for her, the motivation was to kind of get back to her 'roots', and take care of her family home, but for me, one attraction was the thought that I would finally be able to see, participate in, and understand the rice cycle. All the old farm equipment is still there, stored away in the old house, the river still flows by just as vigourously, and although the fields themselves are getting quite broken-down, they could still be repaired.

I should make it clear that I understand very well what such a project would entail. Month upon month of back-breaking, dirty labour. I would not consider taking on such a life-style permanently, as I am quite comfortable with my modern conveniences, but wouldn't that be an adventure for a year! And then to eat the food that we had so carefully nurtured ... Don't laugh! I've never done that!

Alas, our divorce last year, and her move to Canada, have put an end to such dreams, and to my connection with Okunono. But it hasn't put an end to my desire for such an experience. Perhaps in a few more years, when my big printmaking project is done, I will have the opportunity to try it. It's not something I would do alone, but if I happened to meet the right partner, someone who loved the country, and who knew the details of the process (because I sure don't), then perhaps I'll get my chance. I know there are lots of abandoned farms out there in Japan. How do you think I'd look with mud between my toes?

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Big Feet, Light Steps ...


I spent an hour or so the other evening sitting in the dark on the river bank, listening to the night sounds. I heard a car pull up at the nearby bridge, and then a short time later, two men came into view, wading in the shallow water. They were easy to see, because one of them carried a large flashlight, and the other had a lamp mounted on his head, to illuminate wherever he was looking. They also carried spears, trident-tipped rubber-propelled spears. Night fishermen.

They were making plenty of noise, so I didn't think they had much chance of catching anything, but I was afraid that they might stumble across the hiding place of the golden coloured carp who lives in a certain deep place under the banks just over there, or that large stone sitting in the centre of the sandy area, where this afternoon I disturbed a huge fat crab, or that shoal in mid-stream where a thick crowd of fingerlings was rising for insects just a short time before. But they didn't even have the patience for something that easy. After about five minutes of splashing around, they gave up, one saying to the other, "Aw forget it. There's nothing left in this river, anyway." A minute later, all was silent again.

I suppose to long-time residents of this village, that comment was pretty much true. "Nothing left in this river." They tell me that it used to be full of life; ayu, unagi, crabs, ebi, and more. And those are only the edible species, the ones everybody notices. With the total disruption of the river's ecology brought about by our intrusions, I am sure that many microscopic-level species have also disappeared.

I really have to confess to mixed feelings about our impact on this planet. How much is natural? How much is perverse? If I walk down the street and crush some ants, I don't feel that I have done anything 'wrong'. I have big feet, they are very small. As a consequence, they are very numerous. That is the nature of things. If however, I were to walk along watching carefully, and tried to stomp on as many as I could, that would be different, wouldn't it? Instead of a 'normal' balance between our two species, I have now shifted things. My new attitude says in effect, "I want to destroy you. Instead of sharing this living space together, I want it all for myself."

Now you're laughing. "Who cares about ants? There are zillions of them. As a species, they'll probably outlive human beings!" Well, maybe so, but it's not the ants I'm worried about, it's our attitude. We can either live together with the other inhabitants of this earth, or we can destroy everything.

But those two fishermen. Were they really doing anything wrong? They were simply looking for food, and in an honest way, hunting for themselves, the things they intended to eat. They are certainly more honest than I am. Where did the fish come from that I ate last week? Probably a devastated over-fished eco-system out in the ocean somewhere. Me? I just 'close my eyes' and eat.

But now, there's nothing left in the river. Me, and those fishermen, and the rest of you too, obviously have to rethink our attitudes. Behaviour patterns that worked just fine when humans were far less numerous than now, have to be changed. The bottomless, endless, 'natural' supermarket in which we once lived is closing down. Time is running out, and we must now change our ways.

I have just finished reading the book, "The Diversity of Life", by Edward O. Wilson, noted biologist and writer. It is a very interesting and eye-opening description of just how much more vast this 'sea of life' on earth is than most of us realize, and also of the astonishing rate at which this diversity is now being lost, mostly due to human activity. His conservative (!) estimate is that species are now being lost at the rate of about 27,000 per year ... 74 per day ... or about 3 per hour. Extinct. Lost forever. "Let's go home. Nothing left in this river, anyway ..."

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